Why do we collect?

Museums do many things – and amongst the things they do, collecting is central. Yet it’s not just museums that collect. Many people do. Estimates range from 30-70 percent of us being collectors, yet it’s possible that collecting is an almost universal passion.

What makes a collection? While some may think a collection needs to contain unusual or special items, to follow a theme, or to be a representative selection; in many ways what makes a group of items a collection is simply whatever the collector determines. A small collection of mismatched buttons kept tucked in a drawer can be just as much a collection, as a hangar full of airplanes all carefully catalogued by their owner.

Some collectors spend considerable time seeking out items, filling ‘gaps’ in their collection, as well as organising, cataloguing, caring for and displaying items. Others are just as satisfied knowing a haphazard box of photographs contains the nucleus of their family history collection.

Many people like to set out purposefully to acquire or develop a collection, for others a collection seems to creep up on them unawares – one day it’s a few stones on a shelf, the next day they realise they’ve been an unwitting collector of heart shaped stones. Whether the collection continues to develop in a proactive way or is enjoyed for the point that it has reached, can be equally absorbing.


Heart shaped collections

To set out looking for heart shaped stones could turn out to be a discouraging way to spend a day – especially if every good stone seen seems to have other attributes and is equally attractive. But a heart shaped stone collection could also become a collection of anything heart shaped, or even any shaped stone. And so, collections grow and change and become distinctive for their merits however idiosyncratic they may at first seem.

For others, specially made collectibles are the key. Children’s collectible card games can be hugely popular in a sudden craze – and incidentally, can be equally popular with adults, who often preserve these collector sets in incredibly pristine condition for the long term.

Collectible plates or teaspoons designed with themes and special display apparatus take much longer to accumulate. Purchased by mail order, they arrive piece by piece at regular intervals.

For the virtual collector, it may be wins in a game, weapons or costumes for their avatar, or Pokemon GO discoveries that are a joy to accumulate. Let alone the virtual scrap bookers on sites such as Pinterest who amass vast collections of online resources and inspiring images.

Museum collections

At Ashburton Museum we think about collections all the time – we think about both the museum collection as a whole, and the many collections within it. Part of our job is to make the hard decisions about the kinds of things that this museum should collect on behalf of its community – after all we can’t collect everything that exists or we would very soon run out of room for storage.

Museums also need to think about other factors, such as whether the items offered are in good condition – could their condition cause other items to deteriorate for example? Is there enough space and a suitable means to care for the objects? Trains and planes for us, are out of the question, as the museum could neither manage the space they require nor mitigate potential problems such as oil spills. Locally, other museums already serve to build those collections, so there’s no need to double up on what is being collected.

Museums must also take care to use the space, time and resources they have wisely. It’s therefore not appropriate for Ashburton Museum to have a large collection of very similar or duplicate items, when one example could tell a story equally well.

Our aim is not to be an encyclopedic collection, aiming to keep one (or more) of every example and variation in existence. We also focus on our local area – defined as the Ashburton District. What were the interests, passions and occupations of the people who have and do live here? What shapes this region? And what makes it distinctive? Answering such questions helps museum’s ensure they reflect the communities they serve.


Modern and new collectors

Of course private collectors have similar problems. The jar fills with buttons, the garage needs extending. What to do when a friend kindly offers a collection item you’ve already got? Do you keep one, or both, the original or the one received as a gift?

The joy of being an individual collector is that you get to decide – or discover – just what your collecting entails. All collections are best when they grow, change, adapt and continue to reflect the interests and passions of those they represent.

We’re always curious to know what people collect. Do you have a special collection? Or know someone who does? What does a modern collector collect – is it real or virtual, old fashioned or brand new?

Children are great collectors, so we’re especially on the lookout for kid’s collections. If you know of a child collector we’d love to hear – give us a call at Ashburton Museum, as we are keen to learn more about what’s collected by the young and modern collectors of our district.

By Tanya Zoe Robinson


  1. A collection of agates. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. A collection of shell ornaments made by the collector. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. Objects from a circus collection developed and made by its owner. ©Ashburton Museum.

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